Opinion: AI And Polls-India-EU Talks Show Why Collective Action Is Critical

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India will be going to the polls in the next couple of weeks and around 17 European countries will see parliamentary or presidential elections in 2024. It's not being called a mega-election year for nothing-over 50 countries worldwide and half the world's population is voting in national elections this year. 

One of the biggest challenges that has emerged today is Generative Artificial Intelligence(AI)-induced mis- and disinformation. Risk from it has been rated as the most pressing issue in the short term by the World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report 2024. It surpasses even climate change, war, and economic weakness.

On Wednesday, over 35 experts from the European Union (EU) and India are coming together in New Delhi to look at ways to tackle the threat of online disinformation and information manipulation. The Deputy Head of the Delegation of the European Union to India, Seppo Nurmi, has said, "In the physical world, Europe might seem far away from Asia, but in cyberspace, we live together, sometimes in a complex, dangerous cyber-neighbourhood where our societies depend on resilient, trustworthy digital services, and where we can all become victim to malicious cyber-attacks. We need to combat such challenges with mutual defence and strong, trusted cooperation." 

Technology is not bound by borders, and that makes it critical for all stakeholders to work collectively. While countries all across the world grapple with the threat of Generative AI to elections and democracies, the response to the challenge is being conducted largely in silos - separate governments formulating laws, private software companies coming out with guidelines, with the UN Secretary-General also expressing concerns.

From Bangladesh To US - Worrying Trends

The perils of AI are already visible in elections the world over. Bangladesh polls saw worrying developments, with deepfakes targeting some non-ruling party candidates and leaders. Two independent candidates were seen announcing their withdrawal from the polls, but it turned out that both videos were digitally manipulated using deep generative methods. And in what was later revealed to be a deepfake, opposition leader Tarique Rahman was seen urging people not to be critical of Israel for bombing Gaza, a position that is politically fatal in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Indonesia's president elect, Prabowo Subianto, was projected as an adorable, cuddly character via generative AI, creating an image far removed from his fiery military character. The technologically created image appealed to the youth voter, leading to Subianto's victory, though official results will be announced in March. The former army general has been accused in the past of human rights violations and was also banned from travelling to countries like the US. Many wonder what his rise to power will mean for democracy in Indonesia.  

Last year, a campaign ad by the Republican Party in the US showed a dystopian
future if Joe Biden is re-elected President. These images were also created using generative AI.

What Are Deepfakes?

Trade association techUK describes deepfakes as synthetic media that focus on manipulating or altering visual or auditory information, to create convincing fake content, ranging from images, audio and video. It also says they serve as amplifiers of existing threats, including "deceptive campaign ads, mis- and disinformation, voter suppression, and attacks on election workers".

A Common Watchdog

The UNESCO suggested a set of guidelines in 2021 for the responsible use of AI - Recommendations on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. However, this largely works within the UNESCO mandate on education, science and culture. In further efforts, tech companies like Adobe, Arm, BBC, Intel, Microsoft, and Truepic came up with some technical standards that provide publishers, creators, and consumers the ability to trace the origin of different types of media. And while the EU has also passed new regulations for AI, which include provisions for transparency and accountability in AI systems, the US has passed the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act, which aims to promote the development and responsible use of AI.

The need of the hour is for such efforts to be combined and have an overarching agency like the UN take charge, since AI can pose a danger to global stability. Weakened democracies, lack of confidence in elected governments or governments lacking legitimacy can lead to instability within countries and mistrust between countries, possibly leading to further conflicts. The matter should perhaps be dealt with the same urgency as shown in tackling climate change under the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Collective action is required to ensure generative AI doesn't turn into an uncontrolled behemoth.

(Maha Siddiqui is a journalist who has extensively reported on public policy and global affairs.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.